Sarah Cooke Associated Press Writer
HELENA (AP) The governor's proposed state budget and other bills included in his deal with some House Republicans were unveiled Thursday, a package calling for about $180 million more for schools and tax incentives for "clean and green" energy. The governor's school funding bill was unanimously endorsed late Thursday by the Democratcontrolled Senate Education Committee, despite objections by some Republicans to including optional all-day kindergarten. "This bill is critical in the academic success of our students, whether they aspire to be astronauts or legislators," said bill sponsor Senate Majority Leader Carol Williams, Dmissoula. "The education our kids receive in the classroom is what is going to get them in the work force and succeed in their lives." Senate floor debate on the bill was scheduled to begin Friday morning. The House Education Committee must still act on it and send it to the floor of that chamber. A hearing on the budget bill was adjourned without any action, while the Senate and House taxation committees were still hearing the two competing tax incentive proposals and a new capital gains tax on Real Estate Investment Trusts late Thursday. Proposals for $300 million in tax relief and a slew of longrange capital projects and improvements were slated to be introduced Friday. Education groups largely supported the governor's school funding proposal, which contains $28 million for optional all-day kindergarten, inflationary increases for schools, a higher per-educator entitlement, and more money for Indian Education for All and the governor's postsecondary scholarship program. As in the regular session, allday kindergarten generated the most debate. Dave Puyear, director of the Montana Rural Education Association, said the option could put districts that don't offer all-day kindergarten at risk of a lawsuit and asked lawmakers for more leeway in early childhood development. "It places (small) schools in a very difficult position all across the state," he said. "It's a great idea, we want to do it, but it's simply underfunded." Sen. Dan McGee, R-Laurel, called it "one size fits all" legislation and said he'd rather leave the issue up to local school boards. Supporters feared removing the kindergarten language from the bill, as was done in the regular session, or leaving the issue up to school districts would put both half- and all-day kindergarten programs at risk. "This (amendment) allows the choice of no kindergarten at all," said Sen. Bob Hawks, D-Bozeman. "That's dropping the standard to below what we have now and I consider that inadequate." Schweitzer budget director David Ewer said the proposed budget had changed little from the version lawmakers left in the Senate when they adjourned at the end of April. A notable exception is the $26 million more sent to local school districts in an effort to reduce property taxes, he said. "This bill substantially picks up where the 2007 regular session left off," Ewer told a joint meeting of the House and Senate committee that will be evaluating the proposal. Ewer said a $1.8 billion cap on 2009 spending is not negotiable. To make way for the extra tax cuts to come out of the negotiations with House Republicans who have signed onto the plan, Ewer said they cut money from increases sought in human services, corrections, public defenders and other areas. Opponents largely lined up at the hearing to oppose those reductions. Public defenders, for instance, said the money is needed to meet court-ordered requirements to defend criminals. Others said the spending increases, about 11 percent for each of the next two years, are too much. "I think it's outrageously huge," said Constitution Party Rep. Rick Jore of Ronan, "and I think it's a disservice to the taxpayers of Montana." The energy industry largely supported both bills proposing "clean and green" energy tax incentives, although the Schweitzer administration said its version puts more emphasis on alternative energy. The bill by Sen. Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, includes incentives for traditional coal development, such as a temporary reduction in the coal severance tax for new coal mines. "This is not just a business development bill," said Evan Barrett, the governor's chief business officer. "It's about the right kind of development. It's about clean and green, doing it properly and doing it right from the environmental perspective."